What to do about Britain's soaring crime rates?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's enough to make one burn the steak-and-kidney pie.

Britain is still smarting at its loss, to Romania, in last month's Euro 2000 soccer championship (France eventually took the title). But even more painful were the reports of British fans wreaking havoc in host cities in the Netherlands and Belgium. Of the hundreds of British citizens arrested, very few were on police lists of known soccer hooligans. The incidents touched off a national debate on what causes "ordinary folks" to go on a rampage once they leave their home shores.

Then last week, a CBS news report depicted Britain as a crime-ridden nation, more violent than the United States. London-based correspondent Tom Fenton reported that far from being "a gentle and pleasant land," Britain was "one of the most violent urban societies in the Western world. "In Britain, a person is more likely to be burglarized, almost twice as likely to be robbed, and two-and-a-half times more likely to be assaulted than in America," the report continued. Only in the case of murder were Britain's crime figures lower than those of the US.

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It was all too much for a country that prides itself on civility. India and China supplied the tea, but it was the British who created afternoon teatime. And if the death penalty was legal here, "queue barging," or cutting in line, would likely be a capital offense.

And so, Prime Minister Tony Blair, fed up with tales of lawless conduct - and perhaps with an eye toward general elections due next year - proposed a crackdown on public loutishness ahead of a meeting with senior police officers in London.

In a speech to the Global Ethics Foundation in Tubingen, Germany, on June 30, Mr. Blair said, "A thug might think twice about kicking your gate ... or hurling abuse into the night sky if he thought he might get picked up by the police, taken to a [cash machine], and asked to pay an on-the-spot fine of, for example, 100 (about $150)." He added, "If the police want that power - and I believe they will, and the public will support it - they should get that power."

But it turns out, much to the glee of opposition Conservatives, the prime minister was mistaken. Following the London "crime summit" on July 3, Sir John Evans, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said, "The collection of cash is not a practical idea, and we don't have that provision in the British police force." The government's police minister, Charles Clarke, admitted the idea was "not feasible." He said the prime minister was "using a figure of speech."

Instead, during the meeting Blair reportedly asked the Home Office and police chiefs to hold discussions on other ways to combat low-level violence and disorder. These include extending the use of fixed fines, similar to speeding tickets, to combat public drunkenness and other unruly behavior - such as rudeness in bus queues.

Blair is eager to counter attempts by opposition Conservatives to seize the political initiative on the issue of crime. In the past few weeks, Conservative leader William Hague has attacked the Blair government for being "soft on crime."

Law and order - along with adopting the euro, the single European currency - are shaping up as main issues for the next general election.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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